Let's talk about it, shall we?
Despite being shounen, this series is actually more for the mid- or quarter-life crisis crowd in a lot of ways. Its themes encompass the value of life, the futility (or hope) of fighting for your beliefs, whether or not you can make up for past mistakes, and how much you are ruled by your past. What makes it stand out in this regard, though, is its pure (but not cheap) positive take on all these things. All life (including your own) is precious. Your past doesn't rule your present. Hold true to your beliefs. You can accomplish your goals without sacrificing what's important to you, and you can atone for any sin. That is perhaps the theme with the greatest prevalence: atonement. Rurouni Kenshin is all about making up for what you've done, finding your way past those things to move on, and conquering your weaknesses. It's a series about rising out of sin and the trials that must be overcome to do so.
One of the series I've been meaning to watch ever since I discovered its existence (which was almost immediately after I finished the TV series - that is, in the earliest stages of infancy of my anime fandom) is the prequel OVA series for Rurouni Kenshin, known as Tsuiokuhen. I'd actually made an attempt to watch this several years back and got an episode or two in, but one of the episodes was missing or the quality was horrendous (or some similar issue) so I never ventured on. I've finally rectified that error, and. . .well, let's just say that the themes of this series are a little different from those of the TV show.
Tsuiokuhen isn't about atonement for sin - rather, it's a series all about falling into sin. I suppose that's actually fitting, in a way. It would make some sense that a prequel to such a story would be accompanied by precursor themes, as well. Still, to see the actuation of tragedy with such a sense of clarity and. . .grim determination is somewhat shocking. Allow me to explain myself.
Even from the very first episode, a sense of Kenshin simply going through the motions is apparent. It feels as though there's no other choice for him but to do the things he does, and his choices feel "locked." The episode opens with the character closest in role to that of narrator remarking on the inevitable nature of the world's ways, and how no one could change them, no matter how strong. The main "sin" introduced in this episode, the one that precedes all the rest, is Kenshin's decision to join the rebellion against the Shogunate. He does so out of a wish to protect others, a pure desire for a high ideal, but it allows others to determine for him what is and is not justice and results in him becoming no more than a killing tool used by them. He wishes to change the world, but it's already been made apparent that no one can. Multiple people tell him this, but still he chooses it as though he can do nothing else. The idea that Kenshin's path is static is even confirmed by his master:
|Seijuro on Kenshin leaving (citing his purity of will as the reason)|
I'm hesitant to describe this idea as "fate," since I feel it's more analogous to life. A person will make mistakes in life, because there are certain things they feel they must do. That's just a part of living. The next concepts that get thrown in are even more easily understood using this lens.
The second episode explores two primary issues; trust, and a lack of acceptance. The trust part is easy enough to see. There is a traitor in the rebels midst, and suspicion is rampant. In addition, Kenshin meets Tomoe, a mysterious woman who could help him, but he refuses to open up to (and yes, I'm summarizing quite a bit). The lack of acceptance is a little less obvious, and certainly less focused on Kenshin. Still, the inability of different groups or people to see eye to eye is shown throughout. Katsura and Miyabe (two rebel leaders) have radically different ideas of how to fight their war. The rebels and the shogunate cannot come to a compromise, and so they fight. Kenshin is presented an alternative idea, that pursuing his own happiness as a human being, rather than fighting for his ideal of a better world, is better. In terms of both trust and acceptance, however, Kenshin continues to make the wrong choices (for his own situation, mind you - I'm not trying to validate the series' philosophy). Because he is so set in his own path, he is blind to other possibilities and neither trusts nor accepts other views.
|Whilst Tomoe also has some trust issues, she is markedly different in her willingness to accept others.|
In the third episode, this approach becomes more overt than ever, with falsehood being the step in Kenshin's descent this time. He and Tomoe have to live together under the guise of husband and wife while a rebel purge is taking place. They live in the mountains, start farming, and live a "normal" life to avoid arousing suspicion. They forget who they are: Kenshin, an idealistic assassin, and Tomoe, plotting his death as revenge for the murder of her fiance. They find happiness together in their falsehood, deceiving themselves into complacency. That's the problem; they covered up and ignored the real issue (who they are) without ever resolving it.
All of these things lead to the last entry in the series and in Kenshin's fall: consequence. Tomoe dies, Kenshin realizes his mistakes, and he pushes forward with a new resolve. . .but not before going through pain, regret, and loss. He fights for his loved one, but fails to protect her. That, in a way, completes his failure, as that was his goal all along, ever since he first met his master.
There's a very clear order to these things. A desire for good that is driven by naivety, coupled with blindness towards alternatives, leads Kenshin to terrible decisions and a life of murder. Not trusting others only makes it harder for him to escape this path. Then he deceives himself and never resolves these issues and thinks that he can simply escape them. All of this leads to betrayal and chaos (both emotional and mental). It's a very tragic series of faulty choices and mistakes that occur in a very logical order, leading to a sad but predictable end. Furthermore, the inevitability of this procession is hammered in from the very first episode. The execution of Kenshin's descent, as well as the actual plot accompanying it, makes the OVA series a worthy piece of art, to be sure. Still, I couldn't help but feel a little jilted by it in light of the original's themes.
It wasn't until I watched episode 43 of the TV series afterwards that I gained a true appreciation for Tsuiokuhen. It was like seeing someone walk into and out of a dark place simultaneously. That episode contains a lot of the same ideas, scenes, and even lines as the OVAs, but the execution is totally different. In the prequel, everything associated with Kenshin's life and sword skills is cast negatively. He carelessly disregards his own value (and livelihood) and kills without reflection, both things that ultimately lead to a tragic ending. In the TV episode, however, the opposite is true. His disregard for his life is what leads to him realize its value even as he becomes stronger. His increase in skill doesn't signify falling deeper into the callousness of murder, but instead represents a new power to protect those he cares about, finally realizing the ideal Seijuro (his master) mentioned in the OVAs. When these two outcomes, a failure and a success, are viewed side by side, they create something only vaguely realized alongside atonement in the original: redemption.
That's really where the true beauty of Tsuiokuhen lies. I could have written a normal review talking about the excellent music, the slick animation, or the exceptionally well executed plot and that would have been fine. Such a view, however, totally misses what truly makes this anime special. It's not that the original is better or vice versa, or even that they're both good standing on their own; it's that when put together, the two complete each other in a way not many series can. Tsuiokuhen gave me a new appreciation for what was already one of the most powerful franchises of my life, and for that, I am glad I chose to finish it.